A major exercise today will be monitored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission as a host of state and local agencies test Southern Nuclear's network of warning sirens, radio signals and emergency-response activities.
"This will be one of the full-scale emergency exercises," NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said. He said it would start this morning and run through early afternoon.
The event will focus on the procedures for notifying the public of an accident -- and any needed responses or evacuations involving residents living within a 10-mile radius of the Burke County plant.
Although emergency drills are conducted several times each year at nuclear power plants, larger exercises such as the one planned this week usually occur every other year, Hannah said.
"It gives plant staff and support personnel a chance to do something they don't do on a day-to day-basis," he said. "But one thing they don't do is actually evacuate any people because that could end up putting people more at risk."
Amoi Geter, a Southern Nuclear spokeswoman, said the drills typically involve a simulation of an emergency, complete with involvement by county officials and the media.
"There will even be an emergency news center with mock media, so we can process how we respond," she said.
As part of the company's emergency program, Southern Nuclear also mails out a 19-page calendar each year with detailed information and instructions on responding to accidents.
The document goes to about 1,800 residents in the plant area. Similar calendars are mailed to about 3,800 residents near Plant Hatch in Baxley, Ga., and to about 4,500 residents near Plant Farley in Dothan, Ala.
Hannah said the agencies typically hold a critique a few days after the exercise, during which officials look for ways to improve the program.
Although this week's drill is unrelated to the planned addition of two new reactors at the site, Vogtle's emergency plan will face additional scrutiny as the new project unfolds, Hannah said.
"As they get closer to actual construction of units 3 and 4, the emergency plan they will submit will obviously be very similar -- covering same area and same surrounding population," he said, adding that the NRC must inspect that plan as part of the licensing procedures for the new reactors.